Unison Research Unico CD Player Reviewed

Unison Research Unico CD Player Reviewed

Built to match their Unico integrated amplifier, the Unison Research Unico CD player delivers excellent performance in a stylish package. With true balanced analog outputs, a 24-bit/192 kHz Crystal digital to analog converter, a unique high quality power supply the Unico is a winner.

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Why make you wait until the last paragraph? Unison Research has done what I thought was impossible: followed the universally-praised (no, make that ) Unico integrated tube-hybrid amplifier with a matching CD player. And I don't mean 'matching' just in terms of looks and dimensions: the Unico CD corresponds to the integrated in terms of performance AND value for money, which makes it another world-class bargain. It just may be CD player to buy if you're shopping for something around a grand.

It's not just a case of slipping someone else's sub-assemblies and modules into a fancy enclosure. Somehow, Unison Research has managed to cram the thing full of designer bits, radical solutions, a cutting-edge transport, valves and more, but at a sane price. When you read what they've done, you can but marvel. Even its bare bones description would do justice to a £2500 machine. So forget anything I've ever told you about settling, circa 2003, for a compromised, sub-£1000 universal SACD/DVD-A player. This is the way to go until the record industry gets its head out of its arse.

Additional Resources

As in the past, Ing. Sacchetti has collaborated with Prof. Leopoldo Rossetto of the University of Padua's Dept. of Applied Electronics. The two settled on a design using a proper CD-ROM mechanism, a fully-balanced pure triode valve amplification stage, with true balanced analogue output, a 24-bit/192kHz Crystal digital-to-analogue converter, their own sophisticated microprocessor control, a unique, high quality power supply worthy of a power amplifier and the kind of construction we've grown to love in the Unico integrated. It even boasts a serious heat sink on the back...just like an amplifier.

Sacchetti and Rossetto carried out exhaustive tests on a number of drives before deciding that the only way to go was with a CD-ROM mechanism, especially because of the digital output that this type of transport offers. It required a redesign of the interface between transport and DAC because of the different communication standard, but this in turn allowed the player's performance to be kicked up a notch by inserting a 're-conversion circuit' and PLL circuit, resulting in a significant reduction in jitter. Additionally, the CD-ROM mechanism is more robust, offers superior disc reading accuracy, operates with better quality brushless, low-noise synchronous motors, employs a glass laser lens instead of plastic and the CD tray runs on lapped metal guides. Again: not plastic.

As is Unison Research practice for its Unico range, the Unico CD's amplification section is pure triode valve, while the output stage is solid-state. These stages are all-new - the Unico CD has been in development for a couple of years by my reckoning - and consist of two triodes for each channel, allied to a network of bipolar transistors and other passive components. The entire circuit is totally symmetrical, runs pure Class-A and, as mentioned before, is fully balanced. Unison Research chose 5814/A twin triode valves, the military spec version of the familiar ECC82/12AU7 tubes, carefully selecting the pairs to guarantee the same amplification for both channels. The company also specifies the best grade of ceramic valves bases.

Another unexpected-at-this-price-point bonus is an overkill, proprietary power supply, consisting of six separate, fully-independent sections based on precision linear non-switching regulators. It's built to cope with voltage variations of +/-20%, which accounts for the heat sink on the rear panel (to dissipate heat from the stabilizers). Also in keeping with Unison Research amplifier philosophy, the 85W mains power transformer has been designed and constructed using grain-oriented cores and low flux dispersion. A copper electrostatic screen separates the analogue and digital windings to minimize interference.

For the digital heart of the Unico CD, with criteria established by the use of balanced operation, Sacchetti and Rossetto selected the Crystal CS4392 for its ability to supply voltage suitable for use with balanced outputs. Moreover, it operates with digital signals
up to 24-bit/192kHz. To satisfy the requirement of the CD-ROM drive's re-conversion and PLL circuits, the pair chose the Crystal CS8414 chip. With the ante upped so high, a sophisticated control microprocessor was required; the Unico CD uses an upgradeable Philips 64kB flash memory chip, which also enabled the designers to fit a distinctive and highly-legible, green-lit, personalised graphic display. It can provide the company logo and visual information such as 'valve warm up' and countdown when the Unico CD is first switched on, as well as 'time elapsed', 'time remaining' and the usual track information. I was slightly disappointed that the review sample's display wasn't in Italian!

Read more on Page 2.

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All of this good stuff wouldn't mean much if Unison Research had
neglected the ergonomics. Worry not: this machine is an absolute
delight, from the side-mounted on/off switch to the luxurious infrared
remote. The latter is a piece of sculpted, solid hardwood that stands up
like one of those B&O remotes, its anodised aluminium surface
covered with positive-feel press buttons. A nice touch are two
finger-release screws which allow the removal of the panel to expose the
battery slot. The front panel of the CD player itself contains just the
basic transport functions; the remote covers those plus all minor
operations. It's been pointed out that the remote's legends are produced
using a galvanic print process 'so the colour is absorbed into the
metal and will not fade over time.'

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A hefty unit at 24.2lb, it measures 17x13.5x3.75in (WDH), dimensions
and weight which account for the high component content, plus a case
made from 1.5mm thick sheet steel and a faceplate fashioned from 15mm
solid bar aluminium. The mechanism support is made from 2mm thick sheet
steel and is 'anchored' to the front panel for maximum rigidity. It
certainly does not feel like anything less than a high-end player of
indisputable pedigree, not withstanding the plastic tray itself, despite
a ridiculously low price. (Or maybe everyone else's is ridiculously
high...)

[Note that the review sample is one of the first run without digital
output. But some customers demanded it, so, by the time this sees print,
the Unico CD have digital output. Additionally, there will be
user upgrades to activate the remote for use with the Unico integrated
and to select switchable filters.]

Because it has fully balanced capability, I was able to run it
alongside the Copland CDA822 and the Marantz CD12/DA12 via XLR into the
Jadis JPS8 pre-amp and JA50 power amps, a completely balanced path with
wiring courtesy of Siltech, driving a pair of Wilson WATT Puppy System
7s. However much its price would suggest homes in complete systems below
2500 or so, the Unico bloody well in a system costing as much as a loaded Porsche Boxster.

Sheer accident led me to inaugurating the listening with a J.J. Cale
disc, as I normally listen to Cale only when I need to fall asleep. (His
song 'Cocaine' is so sluggish you have to wonder if he ever tried the
drug itself.) But the music, a new CD of a previously unreleased 1979
sessions, came out so languid, so sweet that I could only think of its
scarily close resemblance to a decent moving coil playing mint vinyl
through a tube phono stage. Yes, the Jadis system is the embodiment of
sweetness, but the Unico sounded even silkier than the other players I
tried it against.

Indeed, the differences between all three were so marked that I
quickly arrived at one of those unsatisfying but inevitable points where
taste and preference become the arbiters. The Copland, for example,
bettered both for bass in terms of quantity and control, especially the
snap and slam when tested with Kodo percussion and Steve Gadd's
magnificent work on the recent live Eric Clapton set, .
The Marantz? Audibly better bass extension. The Unico CD fell inbetween
- no mean feat for the least expensive player in the group. If you had
to brand the players by music type, then the Copland would suit a
funk/jazz/dance/hip-hop fan, the Marantz (if you could find one...)
would be the one to go for with a diet of classical music, while the
Unico actually seemed more even-handed and less genre dependent. I think
that's what's called a 'compromise'; for normal people with normal
budgets and normal listening habits, that's a recommendation - not
criticism.

On to the crucial midband, and the Unico was warmer and therefore
more voice-friendly and less wholly analytical than the others, but
there was a tiny sacrifice in the form of slightly less detail and
precision. This was barely noticeable on sparse works, such as ,
but complex, crowded pieces can seem slightly confused. Elsewhere, the
Marantz won hands-down for the scale of the soundstage, and in every
dimension, but the Copland was damned close. In some ways, it was more
convincing, the three-dimensionality being the Copland's forte. The
Unico? Not quite so wide as either, but bettered only marginally by the
Marantz for stage depth. All three allow the speakers to disappear,
while none suffered from the two-dimensionality which plagues certain
UK-made players.

For me, the real test of a CD player is the level of aggravation
caused by the top end. The Copland pulls off the natty trick of having
fast, cut-glass treble without a nasty edge, while the Marantz makes you
swear it possesses a tube output section. The Unico, on the other hand,
have a tube section and isn't afraid to exploit its ability to
dulcify. It doesn't sound as extended as the Copland, nor is it as
lightning quick as the Marantz, but for all that, the Unico seems
unlikely ever to cause fatigue. The justification for that last
statement? Even before I'd run it in, my initial listening session ran
to three hours, ending only because it was after my bed-time.

This player is nothing short of inspired. If you cannot stretch to my
sub- 2000 favourite, the Copland at 1598, then the Unico CD at 1095
may be your ticket to happiness. But I implore you: even if 1000 is
your absolute ceiling, find that extra 95. You won't regret it.

Additional Resources

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